On suicide

When I was a child, my mother used to allow me to wander the library unattended. She is a genealogist, and for the most part, the library is where there were computers or other machines that connected to archives. I tagged along, happy to be left alone to explore my wonderland. 

I remember the moment I first laid eyes on that spine in the philosophy section. At first, I was drawn to the idea of a German female author (Emile Durkheim) talking about suicide. Little did I know it was a Frenchman postulating on the reason why people turn to suicide. I sat in the aisle, my back to the shelves, searching for answers. Turning the first page, I realized this book, this crisis, this epidemic of existential proportions, was older than me (1897!) I wasn’t the only one searching for answers. I had not come up with this concern myself. 

I was twelve years old. 

A year earlier, I had spent hours in the same library, reading my summer book list from start to finish, at times tagging along with my mother, and other times persuading my friends to come with me. To explore the library, full of possibility and knowledge. I rarely read non fiction, rather traveling through the young adult classics and fantasy sections, save for my time spent reading biographies of the greats: novelists, classical musicians, architects, artists. I was obsessed with the world’s beauty. I longed to be part of a world where beauty and luxury existed. I believed it was possible. 

At twelve, I experienced loss from suicide. She was 14, a girl I more than loved, a familiar. My tribe. My heart.

Sitting there, alone, tearing through Durkheim, I searched for the answers no one could give me. Why? How? What does this mean? Can I catch it? Is all hope lost? What happens to her now? To me? Why does this hurt so much?

The answers in this book puzzled me, frightened me, excited me, angered me. Mostly, they left me pondering more often how suicide happens. I was searching for answers and it just prompted more questions. 

That year, I began to tempt fate myself. It wasn’t like playing Russian roulette. I was alone and in pain. I was searching for answers, for comfort, and I found nothing. I’m convinced that my obsession to solve the puzzle of how pain turns into death, how people die in pain, has kept me alive. 

At 14, I became involved in group therapy where other survivors of suicide came together to communally ask the questions I found in the book. Some weeks I went to every group offered. It was then when I came to the realization that the pain that causes a suicide is transferred from the victim to survivor. It creates a link that perpetuates pain, and the only way to relieve it is to discuss it, in community. 

I started my own group, then found others with whom we started a non-profit. It became the thing I woke up for every day. I developed a peer mentoring program, an adolescent survivors of suicide group, then a train the trainer program that was taught throughout the country to peer mentors in high school and resident advisors in college. I created spaces where people could continue to ask Durkheim’s questions. I was obsessed with finding the answer to this problem through the pain left behind in survivors. 

But when I left these groups, when I came home, I was often in more pain. I was more disconnected. People were still attempting and completing, dying, all around me. Despite the hours logged managing a suicide hotline and teaching others about suicide prevention and self care for grief and loss, I never received the help I needed. 

Lesson 1: Sometimes the helpers need help too. Often, the helpers find little help. No one sees them as having weakness.

When I was 16, after the loss of my sister and grandmother, I created a plan to take my own life. The most serious of my several  attempts landed me a spot first in the emergency room, then strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance, and finally placed in an inpatient psychiatric facility for adolescents. “Why did you attempt to take your life?” A weary nurse asked upon intake, removing the laces from my shoes. I responded that I no longer could be in my family of origin. And, because of that, I had no one left alive who was safe. 

In this place, I had conversations with children and adolescents who had the risk factors and warning signs I used to teach teens when discussing suicide prevention. I was the hypocrite, and all I could think about was studying for AP exams. They were my only hope for leaving my family behind. I craved safety I had only read about in the books from the library. In this place, we openly talked about pain, about anger and loss. We all chased Durkheim’s questions. Alive but dying inside, we collectively pondered how we’d gotten to this point so early. 

Sadly, we didn’t come to conclusions. The majority of those I shared space with for 9 days died by suicide or overdose, or became incarcerated for drugs or violence. 

Lesson 2: Pain is rarely just physical. No substance, legal or otherwise, can lessen its grip.

At 18, i completed my first thesis on suicide, mainly highlighting and applying the works of Durkheim and others from that era to collected experiences from suicide support groups I facilitated and suicide hotline calls I managed. I analyzed themes, still desperately searching for answers. My cerebral approach created distance from my own pain. 

I was surprised when my mother asked to read my paper. 

One evening, after one of our long drives down the coastline, my mother taught me about my family history of suicide. My premature birth was a result of her own attempt following my father’s desertion just weeks before. I was horrified. Upon sharing this with my stepfather, he recounted the many times he prayed when my mother and I would take our iconic coastline drives. She used to write suicide notes, stating she was going to remove us from the suffering. She was going to save me from my future pain. 

Lesson 3: Pain can be genetic. It can be contagious. 

They say “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” In a family or environment where safety is rare, where love is conditional, where trust is optional, and loyalty is constantly questioned, children are never taught to seek community. They do not learn how to ask for help or share pain openly. The pain, suffering, anger, and loss is not resolved, and grief continues to take hold. 

Eventually, if not resolved, isolation, desperation, and paranoia sets in. Hope is lost. The existential noose pulls tighter, the box closing in, and options become limited by the weight of the pain. 

Lesson 4: The only way out is through.

What have I learned now, in my many years of continued research, exposure to survivors and victims of suicide attempt and completion, and from my own treatment for trauma? 

  • How someone dies fundamentally changes your memory of them. 
  • A shared distribution of weight lightens the load for everyone.
  • Pain is only lessened by the reduction of stigma and the increase in open discussion about what brings the pain.
  • Pain leads to shame, which leads to isolation. 
  • Some of the best medicine is community.

I have dedicated my life to making better memories. Only when we talk openly about and process the pain is it possible to remember people, places, and things with greater fondness. Only when we feel safe can we process the pain. 

Safety and community can break the cycle. Safety and community are the answer for which I have been searching. Safety and community, not substances, reduce isolation. Safety and community prevents suicide; it creates and maintains the best memories. It creates a beauty in this world that, too, can be passed from generation to generation. 

Lesson 5: It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to ask for help. 

I am forever grateful for the ones who have picked up the phone or answered my cries for help. There have been many along my path, and I remember them all. Thank you for reminding me that life’s beauty is not just something I can read in the fantasy section. 

And for the hundreds of souls who I have lost along the way, especially my heart, you continue to drive me to search for the answers, to create solutions. We can do better; we must be better. I carry your hearts in my heart. 

In the end, only kindness matters.

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Graveside

19 years ago today, I watched dirt pile over my best friend’s casket. I watched as what was left of her was lowered into the ground, inch by inch, the physical space between us mounting. I loved her, I did. 

Since that time, I’ve visited her grave often. I talk to her. I smile at her. I cry with her. I’ve moved away and still I sit with her when I’m home. Sometimes, people ask me if I still have friends or family in my hometown, and I want to say that’s she’s there. I want to raise her from the dead, keep her going. 

Last year, for the first time, I heard her whispering to me. I felt her presence. I experienced the games she still played on me. Now, you may not believe any of these experiences, you may think that dead is dead, but I know it in my core. I know she’s always around, wreaking havoc. Kokopelli girl. 

Today, as I was sitting in the sun at her grave, and I saw 2 blue dragonflies fly around us, finally landing on her headstone. Dragonflies are the sign of my spirit animal, my patronus. They mean I’m on the right track, where I need to be. That I’m doing the right thing. I had my angel sitting on the headstone at the same time, and I felt watched, guarded, protected, loved. I looked at her headstone and said, “i release you.” And she was no longer lingering, but the love and protection were still there. Peaceful girl. 

And always, I carry her heart. I carry it in my heart.

Upstairs

Over the weekend I walked by that place where you first opened up about your dad, where I got to know your girlfriend’s past, where we talked about pasta and laughed about movies. When we talked in This Is Spinal Tap quotes. It was 5 blocks from the Thai place where you taught us your signature move, craning your neck awkwardly to get a server’s attention. Where we celebrated you selling your first Hummer and plotted our revenge against them. The apartment above the Chinese place, next to the gay bar. Right on the main drag in my favorite part of town. Half a mile from our apartment. Close to where you could buy Saucony and cannoli. And we did.

I remembered the night you fell apart, when we couldn’t find you, when we were so worried. The night we had to carry you up those stairs and bathe you when we got there. The night we all fell apart, before we knew we had. I remembering noticing your extensive porn collection. I’d never seen anyone own porn. I remember giggling about it with your girlfriend, while we ate cold spaghetti. 

I remember the night we took a cab from our house to yours, loading up percussion as we went, drums first then bass, heading to a show in the east. How we unloaded the percussion while parked on a hill. How the bass amplifier head smashed my big toe into smithereens. How you cared for me that night. How you gave me booze and cigarettes. How you apologized every day afterwards. Including my wedding day. Including the week before you were gone forever. 

I remember smelling Chinese food coming from the floorboards the night you relapsed. As I sat with your girlfriend, bawling, worried not only about your sobriety but her own. I was mesmerized by the both of you, coming up from such depths, pushing one another to be better. Silly and tender. And we sat there, watching all of it melt away, in silence, smelling Chinese food. Oh, to turn back time to that moment. The silence. The despair. The hope for the future, it was still there. 

I remember swinging by that sign, with our hazards on, hugging, saying farewell before our long drive north. That was the last time under that sign. The last time we’d smell Chinese. Before it all changed. 

I’m not sure how I got so close to you so fast. How I felt so connected to you. I’m not sure why you tried at all with me, even after the divorce. We no longer had ties; I expected you to choose him over me. But you never forgot our friendship in the living room above the Chinese restaurant. You always remembered my birthday. You always reminded me you were there. 

Are you still?

Black Albatross

It was more than 18 years ago now,

The day I watched your face

Turn from violet to blue to an icy white.

I stood there, holding your hoodie.

Complete shock.

This accessory smelled more like you than you.

I remember my mouth going dry from surprise and terror and fear and panic.

My ears recall the utter silence. Pin drop.

Those fibers on the black lining, rubbing.

Your body, more limp, making you look like a hanger, no longer holding up your clothes.

You’d cleaned your room. Spotless. Pledge.

No feelings, just data. Vacuum.

You and me, alone, in a clean room.

You lifeless, me dead inside. Mirrors.

I didn’t do anything. I just stood and watched. I’ve regretted that.

It was our only time alone before all the tears. I’ve regretted that too.

I remember you like you left yesterday.

Wearing socks.

I’ve stayed quiet with regret for so long.

What would I say if no one would judge?

I’d talk about the sigh of relief my chest exhaled when I saw your lips turn blue.

Knowing I could get out and not worry about you.

Chasing my dreams without thinking of the mess you’d become.

I’d tell someone that the last words that left my lips in that room was, “i couldn’t save you. I never could.”

It wasn’t I’m sorry or I love you. You were my loss, but a loss.

I’d express my anger that you left me at the worst time, without a friend. A best friend. You rejected me.

How I gave up my bunk beds because you’d slept on them with me, because I couldn’t stop seeing you hanging.

How you made me more different than I already was. Now I was the girl with a dead friend. Now I’ve watched someone die. Now I have even more issues.

Unrelatable and alone.

How you knew. You knew I had no one to help me with this. No one to turn to.

I wanted to yell at you, to call you selfish. But that wasn’t correct.

I would say I have never quite gotten the hang of being around dead bodies because you were the first. And there was nothing comforting about it.

How every time I’m around one now, how every time I even see Jesus on a cross I see your face.

How I never understood. How I don’t understand. Did you not trust me?

How sometimes, in those first few days, I slept easier knowing you were safer.

How sometimes, in those first few years, I hated you. I hated me.

Guilt. Relief. Anger. Calm.

You changed my life for the worse.

A terrible scar across my heart.
All I could show was pain or nothing.

For so long, nothing.

In a child, out an adult?

Protecting you then honoring you?

Who does that for me?

And all I seem now is selfish.

If only I felt safe enough

To say it while still alone in your room.

Perhaps then, this pain could dissipate.

Over-staying Our Welcome

On the first day of 2017, I completed re-reading Joan Didion’s amazing work The Year of Magical Thinking. It got me wondering, might we mix up fate at times, causing us to extend our time on earth, past that which might be planned? Do we make choices that can alter our ending?

Joan Didion is a master of vulnerability. Joan Didion is not the semblance of joy, but her deep feeling encourages the path to joy. Some of my favorite moments:

John Dunne, on Joan’s Birthday (a bittersweet memory):

“Goddamn,” John said to me when he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”

I remember tears coming to my eyes.

I feel them now.

In retrospect this had been my omen, my message, the early snowfall, the birthday present no one else could give me. 

He had twenty-five nights left to live.

On self-awareness:

I think about people I know who have lost a husband or wife or child. I think particularly about how these people looked when I when I saw them unexpectedly–on the street, say, or entering a room–during the year or so after the death. What struck me in each instance was how exposed them seemed, how raw.

How fragile, I understand now.

How unstable.

On changing the timeline:

I realized that since the last morning of 2003, the morning after he died, I had been trying to reverse time, run the film backward.

It was now eight months later, August 30, 2004, and I still was.

The difference was that all through those eight months I had been trying to substitute an alternate reel. Now I was trying only to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star.

I firmly believe that we don’t need the physical death of a loved one to experience the grief about which Didion writes. It could be the death of an emotional connection, the death of hope, the death of our physical bodies as we know it. We all want to control the timeline, we all want to change things. We all seem unstable and fragile, for however long or short a time.

In 2014, I suffered the disconnection, the emotional death, of my relationship with someone with whom I held dear–closer to me than anyone I have ever experienced. The first quote, the memory Didion shares of her husband, is one I know well. This partner gave to me something no one else could ever give: encouragement. He was my tireless supporter. And he taught me every day, “You’re stronger than you think.” For over two years I have been trying to substitute an alternate reel, only yesterday to realize that, perhaps, the reel had already been altered.

Do I think that we change the course of our lives through our actions? Yes.

Do I think we overstay our welcome, that we wander onto paths that weren’t made for us? No.

No. For we will learn much on our journey, but we’ve got an ending coming that is set as our destiny. Whether this life or the next one, we will be at Journey’s End all the same.

“It’s great to have an ending to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.” –Ursula K. LeGuin

The Lady of Shallott

‘The web was woven curiously,

The charm is broken utterly,

Draw near and fear not,–this is I,

The Lady of Shallott.’

Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Lady of Shallott, 1832

A year ago, I spent 10 days travelling Europe–London first to see my eldest brother, and then to Prague to see my youngest brother. From London, we toured the UK countryside. In Prague, I got some much-needed family time. I felt as though I belonged to something. You see, last year was a tough one for me, as I faced a serious illness that not only compromised my body but also my spirit. I was a broken woman, and I recall the feeling of believing I had hit rock bottom, only to become startled by the bottom still falling out from under me. It was regular devastation. My first full day, I arrived at my favorite place on earth, the bench in front of The Lady of Shallott at the Tate Gallery.

My travel journal entry:

Never has a piece of art moved me like The Lady–she halts my breath, stops time, makes me forget any other art exists. I am most in awe of her vulnerability–the raw emotion coming across her face. She is grieving. Not quite resolved, not quite tense. She is still suffering to breathe, close to weeping. It is the pillar of vulnerability for me. I strive to be The Lady, as I feel her pain but don’t have a boat upon which to push myself. My candle, too, is about to go out. Sitting in front of her, every inch of me aches.

I love watching people walking by her, passing her, only to turn around and stop. She is the most beautiful woman in the world, but only because of the fearless vulnerability she shows. I love seeing young women interacting with her, looking back at her as they walk away. She is tough to come to terms with. And yet, she is inside us all…that part of us that we hold onto too tightly. She lets go of it for us. She exhales the pain we seem to choose to keep.

I am still haunted by this passage. I’m haunted and liberated by the grief she displays so openly. It reminds me that grief is something natural, necessary, normal. 

On the 9/23/16 episode of This American Life, Ira Glass shared stories of people who had died and what they said just before they passed. What grief and death remind me to do is live. In the moment. Every day. Feeling it all. 

Feel it all. Grieve the endings, celebrate the beginnings, sit in the middles. Cry when they leave. Yell when they anger you. Fear for their safety. Delight in their pleasures. You never know when those moments are the last you’ll have.